Churchill Downs recently announced they are increasing the takeout on both the win/place/show pools and the exotic wagering pools. In an amazing show of irritation, Jeff Platt, Lenny Moon and others formed www.playersboycott.org, asking players to not only stop betting Churchill Downs, but the CDHN owned tracks (Arlington, Fairgrounds, and Calder) and to not use the TwinSpires betting site.
All I can say is wow! It only took 150 years to finally get pissed off enough to exercise the power of betting public. But better late than never.
There is no doubt that in the hierarchy of racing, players are on the lowest rung of the ladder, well behind the state, horse breeders, owners and trainers, and track management. I’m not including jockeys and backstretch workers because they might actually be treated worse than horseplayers. The greatest impetus to the players’ boycott seems to be a startling 340% increase in executive compensation from 2012 to 2013. Churchill essentially concluded that they had to pay executives $19.7 million more even knowing they needed $8 million more in revenues for purse increases. I’m not saying the executives don’t work hard, but if your boss came to you and said, I’m cutting your pay so I can get a raise, I’m pretty sure some sort of revolt would be discussed. And in essence, that is what they are doing. Asking the bettors to fund increases in salaries and purses.
I don’t know what they might have asked the owners and the trainers to kick in, but if I were a betting man (wait, I am a betting man), I’d wager the last thing on their list of options was additional entry or stall fees. Think about it for a minute. Who exactly is the customer at the race track? For every disgruntled punter who screws up enough energy to let management know how he feels, there are scores of owners and trainers who are griping daily. True story. I once witnessed a group of trainers confront a track general manager, and when they didn’t seem to be making headway, decided that a punch in the head could more clearly make the point. Amazingly, they got what they wanted. I don’t recommend trying the punch in the head approach unless you have a hankering to eat baloney and white bread sandwiches three times a day at the local hoosegow. Trainers and owners are like the Empire compared to the average Luke Skywalker horseplayer when it comes to management’s ear. When the tracks try to cater to horseplayers, it is usually by giving away bobbleheads or a foil lined thermo-lunch bag. Don’t take this as ungratefulness, but the only people who show up for the bobblehead are people who think they’ll be able to sell it on ebay or people who can’t resist a freebie. Saratoga is famous for its Sunday giveaways, and plenty of people show up, buy six admissions, grab six t-shirts or mugs or whatever, and leave without ever betting a nickel. If you want to make a regular happy, how about a comped comfy seat on Breeder’s Cup day as a reward for showing up every day and being 1% of your total handle.
One of these blogs I’ll talk about the history of Churchill Downs, a track that somehow stumbled and bumbled through its first half century by regularly flirting with bankruptcy, and its irascible founder, Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr . But that is for another day.
Which brings me to the state. Is there a business other than gambling that pays its “taxes” before calculating its profit, and with no chance of a “refund” if it loses money? As Vito Corleone noted, “A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.” Think what a whole statehouse full of them might do.
Bettors are also expected to pay for state breeding programs. Every state with horseracing designates a percentage of the takeout for the breeders’ fund for horses bred in that state, ostensibly to promote breeding and racing. The concept is to create an economic stimulus to breeding horses in that particular state. I’ll rant a bit more on this topic in a later blog, but I have real questions about the forced relationship between bettors and breeders.
It feels like there is a hierarchy of middle men taking their cut from the same, no the only, piece of pie out there. The pari-mutuel bettor. The only analogy I can think of is the old protection racket. Pay us and we’ll let you keep betting horses, and if it gets to be too much…well, too bad.
When I first started writing for Horseplayer Magazine I did a rant where I told this story. I was at the driving range hitting some balls and who should decide he also needed to work on his swing but the track general manager. In an occurrence that at least made you wonder about the reality of divine intervention, it started to rain and the two of us found ourselves waiting out the weather in the nearby shelter. We got to talking and I said something like, “and how about that 25% take on the exotics?” He said, “I know. That’s the maximum amount the state lets us take.” Truly a case of one person zigging while the other person is zagging.
Back to the players’ boycott. It seems to be working. As of June 22, 2014 average field size is down 0.62 starters per race. (-8.13%). If you exclude Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks days, total handle is down $45.6 Million (-26.90%), handle per race is down $111,316 (-21.68%), and average handle per day is down $1,424,385 (-26.90%).
I’m going to weigh in on the side of the players boycott, mainly because it’s about time horseplayers got noticed. But I’m also going to say, even if Churchill rescinds the increase, it doesn’t solve the underlying problem. The current model hasn’t worked for decades and the problems of live racing have only been exacerbated by universal off track wagering, rebates and state laws crafted either by owners or track management in their own best interest.
So what do you think? If you were the czar of racing, what would you do to bring the sport all the way into the 21st century?